Lessons from lockdown: valuing our voluntary and community sector

Image of woman holding a felt heart
Photo by Puwadon Sang-ngern from Pexels

In an earlier blog on lessons from the lockdown period, we reflected on the incredible power of communities, and the necessity of resourcing them properly if we are to keep hold of the energy of volunteers that has been such an important part of the emergency response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. But without a thriving VCS to provide the infrastructure that underpins social action, we risk losing the momentum of these past 6 months.

Stepping up to the crisis

Public funding for the VCS has dwindled over the last decade; waves of local authority cuts have led to difficult decisions about how to support and fund the sector. Financial pressures have shifted the nature of funding from grant income to “earned income” via contracts. Infrastructure organisations have been especially vulnerable to cuts, despite convincing arguments for the necessity of effective, well-resourced VCS infrastructure in order to support local social action.

As the UK went into a nationwide lockdown in March this year,

“all of a sudden, the voluntary sector has sprung up and done what they’ve always done… and shown what they’re capable of” (LA)

VCS organisations were forced to halt most of their day-to-day activities, closing charity shops, cancelling their fundraising events and abandoning face-to-face services. Many quickly “pivoted” their activities, taking services online, distributing devices to the digitally excluded, delivering food parcels to vulnerable families, and offering befriending services to the socially isolated. In many areas, we heard how the VCS worked in collaboration with informal, grassroots groups, offering guidance, advice and practical support to ensure the safety of volunteers. By most accounts, creativity and innovation characterised the response of VCS organisations across the UK.

Local infrastructure organisations in particular have been central to the strategic response in many regions, working in partnership with LAs in order to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable were met during a time of crisis. Infrastructure organisations in many areas took on responsibility for recruiting and mobilising huge numbers of volunteers. In some areas, this cross-sectoral working built on solid pre-existing relationships between LAs and the VCS, something which interviewees felt was key to their swift and effective response. Elsewhere, we heard how the conditions of the pandemic presented an opportunity to move away from silo working that had long frustrated the VCS. For some infrastructure organisations, there was a sense that decision-making structures had been levelled which created a space for the VCS to shape local approaches:

“We were invited into the big tent” (infrastructure organisation)

However, we also heard from some areas where infrastructure support for the VCS was weaker, due to disinvestment and a culture of competition within the sector, reducing the potential for collaboration.

In a few locations, the local infrastructure organisation was unable or unwilling to pivot in order to lead on volunteer coordination, and LAs had to look elsewhere for strategic partners.

“Volunteering isn’t free” – making the case for a properly funded VCS

The pandemic offers the opportunity to make a compelling and comprehensive case for a strong VCS with well resourced infrastructure. The indispensable role that the sector has played in shaping and supporting both strategic and grassroots responses is a key theme within our interview data. This chimes with a salient point that researchers and practitioners in this space have long argued:

“Volunteering isn’t free and it needs an infrastructure to support it for it to be safe and effective” (infrastructure organisation)

Yet, the sustainability of the sector is under threat. NCVO predicts that the VCS will inevitably become smaller, as social restrictions have all but halted opportunities for income generation, and public funding is threatened by the impending financial crisis facing LAs. Indeed, analysis of the Resilience survey revealed that 58% of organisations reported that their earned income had reduced by more than half since the pandemic. The MoVE research has found that volunteer fatigue is setting in, and the sector’s resources have been stretched as organisations have sought to retain their usual support and deliver emergency responses:

“The voluntary and community sector might reach burnout!” (LA)

Whilst finance has been available for those responding to the crisis, many organisations were locked out from funding opportunities and have been running on reserves; the Resilience survey reports that 30% of organisations had already had to use their organisations reserves.

As emergency support, including the furlough scheme, the “All In” scheme and subsidies for food purchasing, are winding down, the demands on VCS services are likely to increase far beyond levels that preceded the crisis. Poverty presents a greater challenge than ever, as COVID-19 has not only exacerbated the existing inequalities within and between our communities, but it has also created new disadvantaged groups. As if that weren’t enough, the pressure on befriending and mental health services is also likely to increase, as the longer-term impacts of an extended period of social distancing and isolation set in. This “absolute tsunami” of need is on its way, as the VCS faces an unprecedented financial crisis.

Expecting a shrinking sector to respond to these challenges effectively is a tall order. If communities are to be at the centre of economic and social recovery, they will need to be underpinned by a healthy VCS that retains its seat at the table. The best way to value the contribution of the sector, is surely to ensure its sustainability as we look to the future.

In June and July, the MoVE project (funded by the UKRI/ESRC) interviewed Local Authorities (LAs) and voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, asking them to reflect on key lessons from the national lockdown period. This blog shares some early findings from this work, which can be read in full here.

Written by MoVE team: Dr Harriet Thiery, University of Sheffield

Prof Joe Cook, University of Hull

Dr Jon Burchell, University of Sheffield

Dr Fiona Walkley, University of Hull

Dr Erica Ballentyne, University of Sheffield

Dr Jenny McNeill, University of Sheffield

Connect with the Mobilising Volunteers Effectively (MoVE) and Enabling Social Action (ESA) team at: @Enabling_SA   www.doit.life/esa

Disclaimer: All blogs express the views of the author(s), and not of the SPA.